Cymbeline Themes


One of the consistent sets of imagery running throughout Cymbeline is that of birds. Posthumus, for instance, is referred to as an eagle-first by Imogen in Act One scene two. The Roman Empire is also called an eagle in Philarmonus' prophesy. Imogen is referred to on two occasions as the Phoenix, which appropriately illustrates both her singularity (she is, after all, virtue among the virtuous) and her death and restoration. Bird imagery pervades description of the other characters as well-Belarius is called a wise crow; Cloten is called "a puttock."

In general, this bird imagery-like other imagery in the play-tends to reinforce the element of divine guidance that emerges in Act Five. All along, the soothsayer suggests, the gods have been guiding the action of the play, so that in the end, after considerably bumpy going, the rightful heirs to England are restored, the wicked Queen and her prince are dead, the virtuous Imogen is reunited with the duped but noble Posthumus, and so on. In the same way, the characters very language appears, throughout the play, to be guided by a divine hand. When they refer to one another and themselves as birds, each ignorant of the other's imagery, they are in fact making up a great harmonious choir, where each has its place. Shakespeare the poet guides this mystic order, just as the gods guide us to the harmony in Act Five, which is in turn symbolized in part by avian imagery. Each element of the play, then, becomes a part of a narrative order greater than the individual participant's knowledge; this is as true of the poetry as it is of the action.

Britain and Rome

Britain and Rome are, so to speak, brother empires in the English imagination. English mythology has it that the same Trojans who founded Rome continued on to found London, and in Shakespeare's day, when the English were formulating their self-concept as an imperial state, they most often alluded to their ancient heritage as justifying present-day conquest. Thus Cymbeline is a play that is concerned, in an important way, with British self-definition. Shakespeare is careful throughout the play to use the term "Britain" when discussing Cymbeline's domain. In fact, during the time that the historical Cymbeline ruled England the term "Great Britain"-which refers to the combined states of England and Scotland, Wales and Ireland-was not in use.

Thus, as ever unconcerned with factual history, Shakespeare dramatizes the bumpy but ultimately harmonious relationship of brother empires. The story of Cymbeline's conflict with Lucius, whom he greatly admires, is akin to that of a son rising against a father, or a younger brother against an elder. In the end, "Britain" wins the conflict-led against impossible odds by the representative "brain, liver and heart" of England, respectively, Belarius, Guiderius and Arvigarus-only to renege upon this victory and realign with Rome. This ending would have obviously appealed to the audience of Shakespeare's day, demonstrating as it does both the pluck and resolve of the English over the Roman as well as the ultimate harmony between the two states. In Shakespeare's time, the English were indeed ambivalent about Rome-they identified with the Ancient Empire while struggling with the Roman Catholic Church. Shakespeare effectively captures this ambiguity in his political plot.


In Cymbeline, "the clothes make the man" is more than a cliché-it's a theme of sorts, and an ambiguous one at that. Many of the characters in the play obsess over the relation between one's identity and one's clothes. Cloten, to take the most obvious example, is offended to the quick, and driven to contemplate rape and murder, simply because Imogen declares that Posthumus' "mean'st garment" is worth more than he is. She insults Cloten in countless other ways as well, but it is this one that sticks in his mind, which is fitting, because the play as a whole obsesses over clothes as well.

This makes sense, of course, in a drama that is so concerned with appearances. Cloten appears to be a prince, thus placing enormous value on his clothing; in fact, he behaves in a completely un-princely manner. He is all show, no substance. Because he places such value in appearances, it makes sense that Imogen's preferring of Posthumus' appearance-which Cloten knows to be less valuable, in a strictly superficial sense, than his-would drive him insane. The true princes in the play-Guiderius and Arvigarus-are royal despite their rustic appearances. Similarly, the penitent Posthumus best shows his substance when he fights, on the British side, dressed as a peasant. Simple, lower-class clothes provide relief from which true character distinguishes itself.

But perhaps in no case do the clothes make the man so much as in Imogen's. When she puts on a man's doublet and hose, she becomes a man, pure and simple. Because she performs a man, she is a man in others' eyes, even in those eyes to which she was known in her female identity. Shakespeare suggests that gender is a matter of performance. Characters are not, perhaps, essentially male or female, it is all a matter of how they act, and how they are perceived. Certainly in the end Imogen is restored to her female identity, but keep in mind that during Shakespeare's era women did not act professionally. The person who played Imogen in the original production was, in fact, a man. And so Imogen is a man playing a woman playing a man, who is restored to a woman. It's enough to make anyone's head spin, and it most likely creates complication-which Shakespeare exploits again and again in his plays-as to what makes a man a man, or a woman a woman. Maybe it is the clothes.


For four fifths of Cymbeline, the presence of divinity is purely rhetorical. Characters evoke the gods for emphasis, and though there is one prophesy, it appears to be totally wrong. In the last Act, however, during a bizarre mini-drama involving the descent of the god Jupiter and the ghosts of Posthumus' family, divinity becomes the organizing force at the center of the play. Jupiter suggests that he himself has deferred the redemption of his favorite characters in the play because, he says, "Whom best I love I cross; to make my gift, / The more delay'd, delighted." In a phrase, this is the dramatic schema of the play as a whole-resolution of all the characters compounded misunderstandings is delayed until the last possible minute, when the pressure of truth finally bursts through. When he gives Posthumus a tablet with a prophesy inscribed on it, we get the impression that Jupiter himself is taking charge, and that it is His virtuosic capacity for harmonious resolution that creates such a head-spinning scene five.

Additionally, Cymbeline is himself considered in English mythology to be the king who reigned during the life of Christ. The play's redemptive trajectory, as well as Jupiter's allusion to "cross[ing]" the one he loves best, provides some basis for a reading of Cymbeline as Christian allegory. Additionally, the tablet that Jupiter leaves in Posthumus' cell resembles, in a way, the tablets God gave Moses on Mount Sinai; like those tablets, Jupiter's prophesy represents a covenant of sorts, a promise that Posthumus will be freed. Such a reading might oversimplify a play that intrinsically resists simplification, but certainly Christian elements of forgiveness and resurrection are also strongly present generally in the drama's resolution.


The debate over whether or not Shakespeare is a misogynistic writer can be argued infinitely from either side. Surely, however, the question is complicated; and given the historical period in which Shakespeare wrote, during which male supremacy was taken for granted even by powerful women, this complexity is in itself remarkable.

In Cymbeline, most expressions of misogyny, the most impassioned of which is Posthumus' diatribe at the end of Act Two, are starkly ironic. Posthumus blames all of womankind for all the faults of humankind. And why? Because a man, Iachimo, has falsely convinced him that his blameless wife is guilty of adultery. It is a man who gets it wrong; it is a man who does the deceiving; it is Posthumus himself who demands of Pisanio hasty revenge, only to regret it later. The common misogynistic thinking of Shakespeare's day, held, as Posthumus states in his excoriation, that women are above all inconstant. Boccaccio wrote in The Decameron, "I have evermore understood that man was the most noble creature formed by God...and woman in the next degree to him, But the more perfect of both. Having then the most perfection in him, without all doubt he must be so much the more firm and constant." In direct refutation of this, it is the men in Cymbeline-especially Iachimo and Posthumus-who are mutable and Imogen who is constant.

Complicating this, however, Shakespeare provides us with the Queen, a woman who is indeed duplicitous and Machiavellian and vengeful and many of the wicked things Posthumus ascribes to womankind. But even the Queen, in her heart, is constant to the one she loves: Cloten. When Cloten goes missing, the Queen dies of grief, which is more than we can say of, for instance, Cymbeline when his daughter goes missing. Or his sons, for that matter. Even in the comically wicked Queen, then, the issue of misogyny is complex. On the whole, it appears that Shakespeare has given us a largely unjust, male-run society, one in which Imogen is judged guilty of a crime she did not commit and forced to disguise her sex merely to survive this false judgment. The case can be made, on the basis of Cymbeline, for Shakespeare the proto-feminist. This is true whether the bard himself knew it or not.


Even if Cymbeline has not always been admired as a whole, it, like The Two Gentlemen of Verona, has always been loved for its songs. It is one of Shakespeare's most musical plays, with two of his most famous songs, "Fear no more the heat o' th' sun," and "Hark, hark, the lark at heaven's gate sings." Merely looking at the song titles shows how intimately these songs are bound up in the thematic concerns of the play. "The lark" reminds us that Cymbeline's chief symbol-set is avian, and further reminds us that birds are distinguished, like Cymbeline, for their songs. "The heat o' th' sun" reminds us of the final image in the play, of the Roman eagle shrinking into the great Western sun of England. Indeed, at the time the song is sung, Imogen fears very much "the heat of the sun," that is, the wrath of her father. On top of these songs, Cymbeline contains a musical interlude of sorts, very rare in Shakespeare, almost more akin to Greek or Roman drama (and the analogue is obviously apt), wherein Posthumus' ancestors intercede with Jupiter on his part.

But beyond the actual music in the play, music is itself a theme of Cymbeline. At the play's end, Philarmonus notes, "The fingers of the powers above do tune / The harmonies of this peace," presenting the play as a musical composition in its own right, with discords and motives and ultimate harmonic resolution. Shakespeare, that most lyrical of lyricists, has created a play that is, in its very architecture, musical.


Looking at Cymbeline, we might easily conclude that Shakespeare landed squarely on the side of nature over nurture. His child-figures in the play-and the nature-nurture issue is obviously most relevant to children-are predetermined, more or less, as virtuous or not. And virtuousness, in Cymbeline, is determined on the basis of an authentic nobility. Guiderius and Arvigarus, who have been raised from infancy in rusticity, have inexplicable noble traits. They long to charge into battle, to speak the sweet rhythms of the court. Indeed, they do these things, without training, and are totally successful. Moreover, they recognize Imogen, in her guise as Fidele, as possessing the same noble bearing as they. Posthumus, too, to a lesser extent, has qualities of nobility that beam through his peasant's garb during the battle with the Romans. This lesser extent, by the way, befits his lesser noble status. He is a mere gentleman, though a genuine one, whereas Guiderius, Arvigarus and Imogen are the children of the King.

Then there is Cloten. It is unknown who Cloten's father is-his ignoble nature suggests, perhaps, even without saying it, that he is a bastard-and his mother is another ignoble noble. Yet as the play begins he is a prince, next in line after Imogen for the throne. Nevertheless, his nobility is not genuine. He lacks regal comportment, completely fails in the games of nobility, and does not appeal to the impeccable nose for nobility of Imogen. Even the sycophantic nobles who follow him around do so in part to make fun of him; he commands no respect. Cloten is noble in appearance only; as Shakespeare suggests (much to the pleasure of his patron, King James, we can imagine), true nobility cannot be learned. It is not a matter of nurture. It is a simple matter of blood.